5G | Connected Car | Infrastructure | ITU-T Standards
May 8, 2018

To 5G or not to 5G? Automotive safety may hang in the balance.

By Roger C. Lanctot, Director of Automotive Connected Mobility at Strategy Analytics

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that automakers are lining up on opposite sides of the talking cars debate. Some carmakers – General Motors, Toyota and Volkswagen – are pushing Wi-Fi-based dedicated short range communication technology (DSRC) while others – Ford, Audi and BMW – are emphasizing 5G for the same application.

The importance of this debate derives from the fact that both DSRC and 5G technologies offer the prospect of direct device-to-device or car-to-car communications for the purposes of avoiding collisions using the same wireless frequencies but with incompatible protocols. Both approaches enable communications between cars and, potentially, between cars and infrastructure and between cars and pedestrians.

Not only are the two means of inter-vehicle connections incompatible, they both require infrastructure that does not exist today. Estimates for the cost of deploying a complete DSRC system in the U.S. run as high as $108B. Deploying 5G will be equivalently expensive for wireless carriers.

The difference in deployment scenarios boils down to Federal and state departments of transportation in the U.S. (and elsewhere in the world) with little or no available funds to stand-up the required DSRC network. Meanwhile, wireless carriers, such as AT&T, have stepped forward to acknowledge that they are indeed prepared to deploy 5G technology more rapidly than they have ever deployed any previous technology.

Extending the functionality of Wi-Fi to vehicle safety applications is a small, but important and very real leap.

In fact, wireless carriers are working with state regulators in the U.S. to receive permission to install the thousands of micro cells necessary to support 5G transmission. Many, if not most, of those micro cells will be installed along highways to support vehicle connectivity.

But the key to the talking car equation is the direct communications between vehicles that will enable collision avoidance applications along with the near instantaneous communication of road hazard information. Both DSRC and 5G technologies will enable these life-saving communications.

I emphasize the point because many automotive engineers are still skeptical that carriers will deploy wireless modules on their networks that will enable direct communications without network support or connectivity. The reality is that wireless carriers have been taking advantage of Wi-Fi technology to offload traffic for many years. Extending the functionality of Wi-Fi to vehicle safety applications is a small, but important and very real leap.

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The bigger problem is the underlying conflict between the DSRC and 5G camps. Since DSRC and 5G share the same frequencies but cannot communicate directly the intransigence of DSRC advocates is setting the stage for the balkanization of vehicle safety.

There is no organic demand for DSRC, beyond commercial vehicle applications successfully deployed and demonstrated by fleet market operators such as Veniam. DSRC is not found in mobile phones and has seen only limited deployment in roadside infrastructure thanks to a few dozen DOT-funded projects around the U.S. – a scenario very much like what has emerged in Europe.

Just as auto makers appear to be divided over the issue of DSRC support, state-level DOTs are similarly split. Seventeen of the 50 state-level DOTs in the U.S. sent a letter to the U.S. DOT earlier this year calling for the Federal agency to proceed with the DSRC mandate.

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These states clearly appreciate the opportunity to tap into the flood of funding ($108B) necessary to support the deployment of DSRC. The remaining states are either indifferent to DSRC or ambivalent or out-and-out hostile. States such as Virginia have already determined that they will waste no more of their own funds on a technology, DSRC, that is on the verge of being bypassed by the more advanced 5G network.

In the end, divisions between car makers and DOTs threaten to balkanize automotive safety while unnecessarily contributing to the increased cost of deploying safety systems. The wireless network being deployed by the carriers such as AT&T and Verizon will deliver this new safety proposition – effectively extending the range of existing vehicle sensors while expanding their capabilities.

“The coding and standards and testing created for DSRC are now being applied to LTE-based C-V2X technology as well as 5G.”

The only path to market for DSRC is via a Federal mandate. The mandate is expected to add $300 dollars to the cost of a new vehicle without delivering any customer value proposition for another 10-20 years – i.e. the time it will take for DSRC to become sufficiently penetrated into the broader fleet of consumer vehicles.

At the meeting of the 5G Automotive Association two weeks ago in Washington, DC, the relief of attending DOT representatives in the room was palpable when an executive from AT&T detailed the company’s plans for 5G infrastructure investment. No such similar plan is on offer from the Federal government.

The best news for the DSRC side of the debate is that the estimated $700M spent thus far on DSRC development over the past 15+ years will not go to waste. The coding and standards and testing created for DSRC are now being applied to LTE-based C-V2X technology as well as 5G. C-V2X cellular networks will support PC5 mode 4 interfaces for direct vehicle communications. At the DC event Ford and Audi demonstrated collision avoidance maneuvers using C-V2X.

It’s time for car makers and DOTs to align on the implementation and deployment of 5G technology and abandon the expensive distraction known as DSRC. DSRC will preserve its relevance in the fleet industry and maybe for emergency response vehicles.

Safety systems in cars are expensive enough without requiring auto makers to simultaneously support two incompatible wireless safety systems. DOTs, too, are insufficiently funded to support two paths to saving lives.

The original version of this article first appeared in LinkedIn. Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of ITU.

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To 5G or not to 5G? Automotive safety may hang in the balance.

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